time, tea, and traditional treatments

Despite decades under USSR rule, traditional practices, from kokboru to kolpacs, are still alive. And it was the nomadic medicinal treatments that I was to have a first hand experience of one day.

It all started (and finished) around a cup of tea, a much-loved point of departure for gossiping, chatting, and sharing ideas.  Having been discussing the stigmatisation of mental health patients in Kyrgyzstan, and the difference in treatment options available in London and Bishkek, the conversation moved to depression. And whilst I was enjoying learning more, I began to wonder if a beautifully sunny morning in a leafy park was the right time to discuss such matters. It was at this point that my Bishkek born-and-bred friend, in a conspirational whisper, informed me that, as well as visiting a doctor (and subsequently accepting treatment) that yes, medicines were very good, but for real healing you need tea and time. I willingly conceeded, having known that “time is the greatest healer” for many years, and imagining the patient  curled up with a favourite dog-eared book, a nice cuppa, and a digestive biscuit. What I had forgotten, of course, was that this was Kyrgyzstan. And here in Kyrgyzstan, this wasn’t quite the picture. Instead, what should happen, I was reliably informed, was a brisk walk off to the bazaar to hunt down the appropriate mix of herbs and leaves for what will then become a glorious healing concoction. Seeing my evident interest, after all to an anthropologist this is so many lectures come to life, it was decided merely having an explanation was not enough… so it was off to the bazaar!

Sure enough, tucked in amongst the dried lizards and tadpoles, my able medicinal guide Galina deftly picked out bunches of dried plants and flowers, offering them to me to smell, and discussing how exactly to prepare this particular brew with the medicine man. As well as these from the medicine man, Galina reached into her bag and triumphantly pulled out a small hessian pouch full of additional ingredients, “from the mountains” she told me with a happy smile.  Given the extent of marajuana and opium smuggling across the border from Afghanistan, you can perhaps understand my slight alarm! Thankfully, that was completely misplaced, and from what I could tell it was nothing more suspect than thyme and sage.

After that it was back to the nearest samovar to boil up water so that, with my doctor-in-training partner Callum’s slight scepticism in mind, I could give the tea a go! (And yes, I realise that it is not a watertight test, given I was thoroughly enjoying life in Bishkek and so to all ends not at all in need of depression-busting tea!). Having sampled what turned out to be quite a bitter but pleasant tea, we set about trying to work out what the different leaves were. To the best of our Kyrgyz-Russian-English conversation (with Galina’s English endlessly more impressive that my vague knowledge of Russian), this is the list of ingredients:
St John’s Wort
Siberian Ginseng

So, if you every find yourself feeling sad, or wallowing in self pity, take a pinch of each of these in their dried form (with the exception of lemon, which is to be squeezed into the hot tea after brewing), add them to boiling water and leave to strengthen for 3-5mins.  Then find your dog-eared book and a digestive biscuit. It might just make you feel better.

Given it’s position nestled up against China, and history with the influence of Russia, it is hardly surprising that the Kyrgyz wild plants, and subsequent herbal remedies, lend themselves to a mix of Chinese and Russian herbal lore. The combination of Siberian ginseng and gingko resonate with this mixing of ideas and cultures that has influenced the proud nomad Kyrgyz way of life. Considering also their existence for so many hundreds of years as nomadic herders, it is hardly surprising that it was the land that offered up so many solutions.  With shamanism arriving with the earliest Siberian invaders, not only were wish trees to become powerful and emotive sites for many, but those undertaking role of healer, administering and providing traditional remedies and medicines, is still a respected and oft-consulted figure.


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